Blood on the Driveway
Barbara Roberts had just pulled in front of her house when the police siren blared behind her. The still-sprightly, 67-year-old, retired schoolteacher didn't know who the police were looking for but she didn't dare get out of her car.
Then everything fell silent and she felt like it was safe again. So Roberts, who all but ruined her knees after years of teaching physical education, decided it was OK to walk from her car to her house. She took hold of her purse and slowly ambled out onto NW 17th Avenue, which lies just off Sistrunk Boulevard, the central artery of black Fort Lauderdale.
Just after she got out of the car, the silence was cracked by chaos.
"Get down! Get down! Get down!" she heard a police officer yell a few yards behind her (although not at her). The shouting was immediately followed by an explosion of gunfire.
"I just jumped to the ground, not even caring if I broke my knees again," she says. "I got down behind my car and said, 'Oh God, oh Lord.' It was terrifying. It was traumatic. It really got to me."
Across the street, one of her longtime neighbors, Henry Blade, was inside his house when he heard what sounded like combat break out in his driveway. The 65-year-old retired military man opened his door and saw two Fort Lauderdale police officers, weapons drawn, standing beside a white SUV that had backed into his driveway and knocked over his white wooden mailbox.
He held the screen door, afraid that the popping sound of it closing would prompt the police to fire in his direction. The officers yelled for the man behind the wheel of the SUV, later identified as 21-year-old Troy Eddines, to put his hands on the dashboard. Another man, Travis Jackson, lay on his stomach beside the SUV, bleeding profusely.
Eddines never was able to put his hands on the dashboard.
"I guess he was taking his last breath," Blade surmises.
Later, Eddines' body was pulled from the SUV, leaving behind a large bloodstain on Blade's driveway that still hasn't washed off. "I got a little uneasy in the gut when I heard the body fluids running out of him," Blade told me last Wednesday while sitting in a white plastic chair just a few feet from the place of death. "It was like a release. It's not a nice sound or a nice feeling when you hear it."
The sounds that haunt Blade, the loss felt by Eddines' family, the bloodstain, Roberts' lingering trauma... they're just some of the remnants of the November 28 shooting that has become a symbol of the schism between the department and the black community of northwest Fort Lauderdale.
Neither man was armed. An outcry by the NAACP and Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Carlton Moore has sparked an FBI investigation into the shooting which marked the fourth police slaying in the past six months. A subsequent town hall meeting devolved into a tense shouting match between attendees and cops.
And two weeks later, the question still hangs in the air like acrid gun smoke: Was the shooting (and killing) justified?
The answer likely will never be clear-cut to anyone who doesn't already side automatically one way or the other. The truth of what happened in the moments that Officers Robert Norvis and Todd Hill fired their department-issued 9mms into that SUV and through the flesh of Eddines and Jackson will likely be shaded by impressions and suppositions and obscured by unverifiable claims and denials until it evaporates like the fading light of faulty memory.
My money says the officers will be cleared of wrongdoing. Not because it was a good shooting (I don't believe it was) but because it might not be a wholly bad shooting either. It's murky and those with the badges will likely receive the benefit of the doubt.
We still don't really know what happened during the shooting, which is why I made a visit to 17th Avenue. I wanted to get a sense of the scene that Tuesday afternoon, to figure out if Norvis and Hill, partners in what police amorphously call the "Special Problems Unit (SPU)," overreacted or if their lives were truly in danger when they opened fire.
I'll start with NAACP President Marsha Ellison, who was given details about the incident from Police Chief Bruce Roberts. She told me that Eddines and Jackson, both black, were heading west on Sistrunk Boulevard in the SUV when Norvis and Hill, both white, noticed a "known drug dealer" leaning into the vehicle. The officers, now suspicious, began following the SUV in their patrol car.
Later, the officers allegedly realized that the SUV matched the description of one that had been commandeered during an armed hijacking in Coconut Creek. When they ran the tag, however, it came back to a car dealer, Ellison says. Apparently, it had been switched out.
With police trailing him, Eddines made a left turn onto NW 17th Avenue, heading south, and pulled nose-first into a duplex driveway next door to Blade's house, those who live on the street say. Norvis and Hill stopped their patrol car on the road and got out.
Standing outside the SUV, one or both of the officers began yelling "Get down!" a moment forever etched in Roberts' mind. The words indicate to me that either the passenger or driver were moving inside the vehicle, possibly trying to exit.
Then the SUV made a reverse U-turn, swinging back into the road and then swerving backward into Blade's driveway. Bullets rang out. The exact timing of the shots in relation to the SUV's movement isn't known.
Police forensics specialists left squares of orange paint on the road, apparently marking the casings left from the bullets. The marks of orange paint describe an arc almost perfectly from the end of the duplex's driveway onto the road in the direction the SUV swerved.
There are 16 marks, though police say there were fewer than eight bullets fired. All indications are that the officers fired into the front and driver's side of the vehicle.
While Eddines was killed in his seat, Jackson, who was shot in the left side of his back, managed to get out of the car.
"It isn't known if the bullets went through one and went into the other or not," says Det. Katherine Collins, the department's spokeswoman.
I suspect that Collins is advancing what will become the official police story: that as Norvis and Hill shot at Eddines, they inadvertently hit Jackson in the back. It's a convenient theory for the department and one that certainly could be true.
But there are serious questions. That it appears the shots were fired from the side and front of the SUV is problematic, since either officer would have only been in mortal danger and thus permitted to use deadly force had they been behind the vehicle at the time the shots were fired.
I think the officers, based on their shouted orders both before and after the shooting, thought one or the other was going for a gun.
Again, I don't think it was a good shooting, but a case could be made that under the extreme circumstances, with the possibility of a gun and the erratic movement of the SUV, they believed they were in danger. It's hard to judge them too harshly, considering the fact that they put themselves in danger on a daily basis to catch criminals for... us.
I think it's going to come down to whether investigators believe them. And the fact that Eddines had been implicated in the armed carjacking just days before and both victims have extensive criminal records won't tend to give them much sympathy from anyone.
But what about Norvis and Hill? What are their track records? Well, they can either be seen as heroes or villains, depending upon the point of view.
Both are oft-commended officers who have worked the streets along Sistrunk as part of the narcotics unit, also known as the "Northwest Raiders."
In a recent evaluation, Hill, who joined the force in 1998, was described as an "honest, sincere, outgoing" officer, a "team player" with an "outstanding attitude" who "takes responsibility for his actions."
Norvis is a former U.S. Marine whose commanding officer in the corps, Col. M.A. Hough, called him a "model of professional excellence" in an effusively positive 1993 recommendation letter. After serving as a police officer in his native New Jersey, Norvis joined the FLPD in 2000.
During his first days on the job, he was involved in a gunbattle on the street with a mentally unbalanced, gun-toting former cop named David Royce Truman. Truman shot and injured Norvis' partner at the time, Sam Bryant, prompting Norvis to shoot and kill the suspect. Norvis, who suffered a gunshot wound to the hand, was honored as Officer of the Year for his heroics.
The two officers together had been on what can only be considered a phenomenal run during the last year, catching carjackers and robbers on a regular basis, according to their commendations. In July, they were named Officers of the Month for numerous captures and arrests of suspected criminals.
They are, quite simply, stars in the department.
Both have been the subject of excessive-force complaints. One man claimed Hill struck him multiple times in the mid-section during a 2001 arrest. Another defendant claimed in 2002 that Hill beat him after he was already handcuffed. Hill was cleared of wrongdoing in both cases. He did receive a reprimand for a 2004 traffic accident that was deemed "preventable."
In 2003, Norvis, who recently put in for sergeant, was criminally investigated and ultimately cleared after a man accused him of breaking his arm while apprehending him.
In July, a complainant named Christine Jones lodged a complaint against Norvis and Hill, whom she said kicked her son in the face after he was cuffed. When she confronted them, she reported that one of them replied: "Yeah, I kicked him, and I'll kick his ass again." She also said that Hill told her: "Get your black ass back before I take you to jail."
Jones didn't follow up on the complaint, a failure Ellison, who spoke personally with Jones, says is common. "People are afraid to follow through," she says. "Police have been terrorizing them with threats and scaring them off."
You see, nothing in this case is (pardon the phrase) black and white. And, despite media reports of widespread public outrage, one senses that most people are just waiting for the findings. As Mayor Jim Naugle, a staunch defender of the police, puts it, "The response in the community has been mild and not very deep."
Indeed, opinions about the shooting run the gamut on NW 17th Avenue. Blade, for instance, thinks the shooting was unjustified, that Eddines and Jackson were simply trying to run away. "I think the officers probably panicked and were scared, I don't know," he says. "I think they panicked and they're trying to cover it up. They shot too many times for one thing."
Blade's neighbor across the street, Henry Walker, says he believes Norvis and Hill did exactly what they had to do under the circumstances. He saw the immediate aftermath of the stop and shooting and says a cousin of his saw almost all of it.
"I think they tried to run over the police, in my opinion, so they could get away," says Walker, who has lived in a bungalow on the same spot of ground his entire 46 years. "What else were they doing? People make it a racial thing, but it isn't. The police were protecting themselves."
Roberts, the retired schoolteacher, says that she's "puzzled" by the shooting but that she is withholding judgment while she tries to recover from the emotional and physical jarring she received from the shooting.
"This is a quiet neighborhood, we've been here for years and years and years, and we look out for each other," Roberts says. "I don't really know what to think, but I know nobody wants anybody killed around here."
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